Three Young Singers Make Show Tunes Hum (excerpt)

by Stephen Holden


If the American musical comedy is an endangered species, its precarious state cannot be attributed to a shortage of talented singers. Not only in New York, but around the country where light-opera companies and community theaters perpetuate the classic shows of Broadway's golden age, young performers are emerging who have been bitten hard by the musical-theater bug.

Judy Kaye, who portrays the union activist Babe Williams in the New York City Opera revival of The Pajama Game, is one of the hardy few to rise to the top in a field where able performers far outnumber the available leading roles. Last year, she won a Tony Award for her portrayal of Carlotta Guidicelli, the reigning Parisian soprano who is jinxed in The Phantom of the Opera. Miss Kaye's transformation from huffy French diva to brash Midwestern organizer is typical of the kind of stretch today's well-trained musical-theater performers must make in order to keep working.

Although a performer need not live in the shadows of Broadway to be smitten by musical comedy, an early direct exposure to Broadway certainly helps.

"As a child, I started seriously fantasizing about the music theater after coming to New York and being taken to see Funny Girl," Miss Kaye recalled the other day. "It's incredible to me that it can come full circle--that you can actually dream something like that and have it come true."

Miss Kaye, who attended the University of California in Los Angeles and appeared in college shows, moved to New York in the late 1970's to work in Broadway in On the Twentieth Century, in which she was cast as Madeline Kahn's understudy. In the spring of 1978, five weeks after the show opened, she took over the role, and she has worked steadily in the musical theater ever since.

Even by the demanding standards of the musical-comedy world, Miss Kaye's resume is remarkable various. She has played everything from Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd to Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music, to Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar, to Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun. She has also sung opera, having appeared last January in the world premiere of Desire Under the Elms at City Center. "One of the reasons I'm doing Babe Williams in The Pajama Game is that I've never played a real down-to-earth character in the city of New York," Miss Kaye explained. "I usually play hysterical women who sing very high. I want people to see that I can join the real world and settle down."

The role of Carlotta in Phantom was typically hysterical and high. "The character never finished a song," Miss Kaye said. "Every time she neared a big ending, something would fall on her head. Though I was nervous about singing so high for so long, it turned out to be good for me, because I got to use a part of my voice that I rarely get to use. The role of Babe is just the opposite. It's more of an acting role, but what singing there is is very low and belty."

Miss Kaye has high praise for The Pajama Game, which begins performances this evening and in which she sings, "Hey, There," "I'm Not at All in Love," and a couple of rip-roaring duets with Richard Muenz. "The show has a terrific score," she said. "And there's actually a good play underneath--a good play that came from a good novel."

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